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1/9 Providence, RI: ACLU sues state police
Released 08 January 2007  By Karen Lee Ziner, Providence Journal

ACLU sues state police
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Karen Lee Ziner, Providence Journal, RI

PROVIDENCE - The Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a federal lawsuit against the state police, alleging racial profiling and violation of the constitutional rights of 14 Guatemalan nationals during a July traffic stop that led to their detention by immigration officials.

Steven Brown, director of the Rhode Island affiliate, yesterday noted the unusual nature of the lawsuit filed by ACLU volunteer attorney V. Edward Formisano.

“It’s very rare for individuals like these plaintiffs to be willing to step forward and challenge questionable police practices that they’ve been subject to,” said Brown.

“The citizenship status of the plaintiffs is really irrelevant to this lawsuit. These were individuals who were in a van that was stopped for a minor traffic violation. The question is whether police have a right to detain individuals for no other reason than the way they look …”

Said Brown, “The law generally prohibits racial profiling on the highways. It prohibits stopping or searching vehicles based on the person’s race or ethnicity, all of which we think were present in this case. It also specifically bars police officers from detaining individuals in cars longer than necessary to address the initial traffic violation. From our perspective, that restriction was clearly violated in this case.”

The lawsuit names the State of Rhode Island, the state police, state police Supt. Steven M. Pare and Trooper Thomas Chabot individually; and a “Jane Doe” state trooper whose identity the ACLU was unable to establish.

State police spokesman Maj. Steven G. O’Donnell said yesterday, “We respect the ACLU’s right to file any lawsuit but we have reviewed this matter at length and continue to support Trooper Chabot’s actions. We also respect the court process and we’ll wait and see how the court rules” before making any comment.

The allegations stem from a traffic stop by Chabot early on July 11 on Route 95 in Richmond.

According to the lawsuit, Chabot pulled over a van operated by Carlos A. Tamup because Tamup had failed to use his turn signal when changing lanes.

The lawsuit alleges that Chabot first confirmed that Tamup’s license and registration were valid and that he had no criminal record.

“Chabot nonetheless proceeded to open the doors of the vehicle, and by utilizing Tamup as a translator, requested all the passengers to also provide identification,” according to an ACLU synopsis of the case. When some failed to do so, Chabot then asked them to produce documents “demonstrating their U.S. citizenship.”

When none of the 14 were able to do so, Chabot advised them that they would all be escorted to the federal Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Providence.

Then, the lawsuit states, Chabot instructed Tamup, the driver, that he was responsible for the vehicle’s passengers, and that if any passenger attempted to escape from the van en route to Providence, that passenger would be “shot.”

Chabot and the trooper identified only as “Jane Doe,” then escorted the group to the Providence ICE office.

Formisano, the ACLU lawyer, is seeking a declaratory judgment that the defendants violated the constitutional rights of the driver and his passengers, and demands punitive and compensatory damages on behalf of the 11 plaintiffs. Besides Tamup, the plaintiffs are: Astrid G. Estrada, Wendy M. Estrada, Guilfredo E. Munoz, Jose A. Aquino, Cruz F. Rivera, Jose Burgos, Abelino M. Urizar, Israel Tebalan, Rolando Noriega, Boris R. Cruz, and Elsa Hernandez Villavicencio, all of Providence.

The lawsuit argues that the actions by the state police “violated the state’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act, as well as the driver’s and passengers’ constitutional rights to be free from discrimination and from unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The suit argues that the defendants “knew or should have known that the search, seizure and detention of the plaintiffs were without reasonable or probable cause, and were therefore unlawful under the circumstances.”

The lawsuit also steps into the heart of a national controversy over whether local police should be involved in enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Brown said, “To their credit, many police departments across the country have rejected the opportunity to enforce those laws for a number of reasons. I think first they recognize they don’t have the expertise with these laws … also, that doing so undermines trust in the communities that they serve. People in immigrant communities are going to think twice before they contact police if they’ve been victims of a crime, if they think they’ll be the ones who end up on trial.”

The van stop also rattled Rhode Island civil rights advocates, who during a public forum this summer and a subsequent news conference, criticized state police Superintendent Pare’s response to the incident. Pare ordered an internal review after the ACLU filed a complaint. That investigation cleared Chabot; Pare stated that Chabot acted “professionally and appropriately,” and denied racial profiling by the trooper.

The state police response to the first complaint “expressed complete satisfaction with the way the stop and detention occurred, which led to this lawsuit,” said Brown.

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